The Crux of a Lifetime

How do we navigate our biggest challenges in the mountains? Let’s apply that same approach to the greatest challenge our world has faced in generations.

By Julie Brown

Photo: Adam Clark

The skintrack zigged and zagged tightly up the couloir and disappeared into a gray abyss. Low, swirling clouds swallowed the vertical rock walls on either side. The summit was out of sight, impossibly distant. I was a speck on a magnificent, monstrous, rock-lined, powder-filled couloir that from afar inspired bravery, and from up close brought nothing but abject fear. 

We all experience moments of uncertainty. But the mountains teach us to lean into our challenges with curiosity, openness, care, and compassion. Now, as COVID-19 washes through our communities, our homes, our thoughts, and our bodies, the skills we use to move through the mountains are the same ones we need for this crisis, more than ever. This is one we need to lean into.

With hindsight, I know that I made it to the top of the couloir that day. I can clearly connect the dots between my persistence, my introspection, my will, and the summit. But in that moment, as I pushed one foot in front of the other, I honestly didn’t know if I would make it. Anxiety lurked at the edges, ever threatening to overwhelm my focus. Over and over again, I had to check in with myself, listen, breathe, trust, force myself to make a decision that aligned with my deeper gut feeling, and keep moving. 

I find myself going through a similar process now, even though I’m far away from anything covered in snow. I’m planted firmly at home, on my couch, in a sprawling Western city in the Great American Desert. The mountains feel like my backyard, but in reality, they are a 30-minute drive away. So here I sit, watching through the digital windows on my computer and my phone as this new coronavirus holds the world in suspension. I flip through the channels of my online life in an endless loop that feeds my anxiety and fear. Try as I might to limit the bad news, the only way I know how to stop the mounting thoughts is to go outside. 

Out there, breathing in fresh air, moving my body, I can access the voice I’ve nurtured in the mountains, and that helps me to navigate these uncertain days. I need the air, I need the sense of space. I need to keep exercising. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization the other day recommended going outside for “a run or a ride”—if your local or national guidelines allow it and you can keep a safe distance from others. A half hour of activity is recommended for adults, an hour for children. According to the WHO, exercising isn’t just good for your state of mind, it helps you keep your immune system strong, and may help you fight COVID-19.

Has there ever been a time when our collective society has appreciated public lands more? Over the weekend, people headed to the mountains, parks, beaches, and trails with the very best intentions to get outside, stretch legs, move bodies, and breathe. But here’s the rub: our public lands are shared spaces. There are only so many trailheads, only so many places to park, restrooms and trash facilities are closed, and there are many thousands of hikers and skiers and people who, like me, just need a dose of sky. Sadly, our public land managers and the agencies they work for are already behind. Funding and staffing are famously at bare minimums. Public infrastructure is falling apart. Collectively, we are not equipped to handle the number of human beings who want to get outdoors even in normal times. Add in a poorly understood pandemic, a national emergency, and one in three Americans (including the majority of federal land management staff) ordered to stay home, and—well—here we are.

Coronavirus has squared off my simple desire to go outside and into the mountains with urgent questions. Does the recommendation to “go outside” include backcountry skiing? What if the nearest park is a two-hour walk across a concrete wasteland? If the mountains are 30 minutes away, does that count as staying home? Should I park my car at a trailhead, even if there are many other cars and people tailgating, as long as I try to keep my personal distance? 

Last weekend, I chose a road bike and pedaled from my front door instead of driving farther away to go skiing. Still, when a 5-year-old sneezed in my direction, I felt my stomach jump into my throat. I was irritated, and then I felt confused about who I was becoming in this pandemic. I turned around and went home.

Ski resorts are closed. They’ve already been shown to have been significant vectors of outbreak. Vail Resorts and most other ski areas have also prohibited uphill skiing. Alta, by contrast, stayed in good favor by allowing people to skin up and ski down under their own power. This seemed like a good idea, a welcome relief, until people saw the spring-skiing crowds, the tailgate gatherings, the littered trash and yellow stains in the snow because bathroom facilities were closed. Aren’t these crowds the very reason the ski resort closed in the first place?

These are questions we are all asking. But the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and even our land management agencies are not answering clearly and directly. Instead, they’ve put the onus on us, as individuals, to make decisions that on the one hand satisfy our primal urge and our basic need to get outside, and on the other serve the collective good. People make different decisions. You and I might stay home, but our neighbor will go skiing. Unfortunately, that difference of judgement matters a whole lot right now.

Meanwhile the pandemic surges exponentially—as of this writing, New York is projecting a peak of infection in 2-3 weeks and a need for nearly 100,000 more inpatient beds than it currently has. It seems likely that many thousands of people will die, as they have in Italy and Iran, as they are doing in Spain. Do we believe that Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, and all the rest will somehow escape this fate? Do we believe that our charming little mountain towns will somehow prove immune?  As long as people refuse to stay home, and convince themselves that they are outside of the equation, authorities are reacting by implementing stricter and more extreme measures. After another particularly crowded weekend at trails and slopes, parks and beaches, California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday that he is shutting down parking lots at state beaches “to help you help yourself.” 

The mission of Winter Wildlands Alliance is to protect public lands, preserve access to them for recreation, and at the same time to encourage our community to be stewards of the places we love so much. Closures of public lands concern us deeply. However, in this unprecedented time, the challenges presented by this virus are glaring and urgent. The more we encourage people to go backcountry skiing right now, the more our collective health and our long-term access to public lands is put at risk.

In San Juan County, Colorado, the Sheriff prohibited backcountry recreation, full-stop, due to limited medical and emergency response systems. The order will be enforced by ticketing and towing vehicles parked on mountain passes and county roads. Vail Mountain Rescue Group asked skiers to stay out of the backcountry until further notice. The Northwest Avalanche Center has suspended avalanche forecasting to help encourage people to follow Washington’s governor’s lockdown. In France, where backcountry skiing and mountaineering is currently banned, police are stationed in Chamonix to stop people from going into the mountains. 

Bishop, California, is making a plea for a similar shutdown in the Eastern Sierra. Climbers, in particular, have descended on the rural town and surrounding areas, and officials urgently asked the Forest Service and the BLM to close the vast public lands that surround all sides of the town. Ditto Joshua Tree, Moab, City of Rocks.

We are at one of those big crux moves. Coronavirus underscores many of the issues we work on regularly. If anything, this crux has deepened our resolve. Public lands are vital to our health and wellness and we need to protect them and fund them so land managers can give them the love and care they need, educate visitors, maintain clean bathrooms full of soap for washing hands, and keep access open for all of us. If you ever questioned the National Environmental Policy Act, perhaps now you can understand why science and democratic decision-making, with robust input from local communities and user groups, is essential. In the absence of federal action, our communities have risen up to follow the science and will do everything we can to save our residents. 

But for us as individuals, in a time of decentralized and uncertain leadership, finding a way to navigate this pandemic and these uncertain days remains fraught. The internet is as full as ever of “dos” and “don’ts.” For what it’s worth, of all the lists we’ve read, we would steer you to the Leave No Trace guidelines for COVID-19, especially in light of all the bathroom facilities that have closed at trailheads and trash pickup that is no longer happening. 

We’ve also worked with our partners at Outdoor Alliance to compile this list of recommendations for going outside to recreate. We certainly suggest that you avoid crowded trailheads, skin at least two ski poles’ distance apart, and not tailgate. But we can’t tell you how far away from home you can travel and still in good conscience count yourself as “local.” (Though you might ask yourself if you pay taxes in that county to support local schools and hospitals and search and rescue personnel.) We can’t be in the car with you to help you judge whether it’s safe to park and go for a walk in the woods at this trailhead, or to climb that crag, or how to keep yourself from tearing your ACL or setting off a slide, or whether you should find another spot—or just turn around and go home and plant potatoes. 

Instead, we recommend that you lean in on that voice that has led you into (and ultimately back out of) the mountains. The voice that helped you make those small, pivotal decisions in the most challenging moments of every climb. Listen to your gut, make smart, conservative decisions, know your limits, and pay attention. Don’t be afraid to retreat if conditions are sketchy and the risks too high.

Let’s act with good conscience, let’s take responsibility for our decisions and our collective wellbeing. Let’s be mindful of the impact our decisions might have on others. Let’s follow the recommendations of our local authorities and medical professionals. And let’s remember: the harder we work now—the more powder days we skip in the short term—the sooner we will tackle this particular crux, the sooner all of us can get back to full freedom of the mountains.

One last thing, let’s remember to speak compassionately with our neighbors and our friends, even if they choose to do something differently than we do. Even on Facebook. Every one of us is grappling with this. And every one of us is trying our very best.